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The story of the Polish orphan refugees who found sanctuary in Pahiatua

Prime Minister Peter Fraser and Countess Maria Wodzicka on the General Randall with refugee children in Wellington, 1944. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

On October 31, 1944, a US troopship sailed into Wellington Harbour. On board were 732 Polish refugee children, escaping the horrors of war-torn Europe.

It was early on the morning of Father's Day and the radio talkback host had invited listeners to phone in with memories of their fathers. A woman who called herself Rozalia, phoning from the South Island and speaking in an Eastern European accent, came on the line and told how her father had died in Siberia when she was seven.

He was sick in bed, in a barracks in the forest. She was playing nearby and would occasionally go to his bed to talk to him. But on her last visit to his bedside, he was silent and still. He had gone.

The woman went on to relate, in a disarmingly matter-of-fact way, how her mother had been killed three months earlier – hit by a train as she walked through the snow to a nearby village for food.

The talkback host seemed lost for words, so taken aback by the woman's story that he didn't think to ask what seemed an obvious question. How could a woman living in New Zealand have been through such traumatic childhood experiences in faraway Siberia?

Had he known more about the byroads of New Zealand history, the host might have deduced that his caller was one of the Pahiatua Poles – 732 refugee children, the victims of appalling wartime treachery and suffering, who were given sanctuary here in 1944.

The Soviet tanker Zdanov with Polish refugees bound for Iran. Photo/Courtesy of John Roy/Chris Gladun

Rozalia's story was unexceptional by the standards of the Polish refugee children, which might have explained her matter-of-fact tone. Of those children, only a handful arrived accompanied by a parent. Most left mothers, fathers, brothers or sisters behind, unceremoniously buried in unmarked graves in the Siberian forests or on the steppes of central Asia.

It's an extraordinary saga that, despite being well documented, remains relatively little known – hence the importance of a reunion to be held on the weekend of October 31-November 1 for the estimated 500 Pahiatua Poles, most now in their 70s, still living in New Zealand. It may be the last such gathering; the "last big bang", as organising committee chairman Eric Lepionka describes it.

Lepionka says although the survivors find it painful to talk about what happened, it's important that their descendants know how they came to be here. "The latest generation hasn't heard our story."

Orphans in Pahlavi, Iran, about 1942. Photo/Courtesy of John Roy/Chris Gladun

The reunion will commemorate the 65th anniversary of the morning the Polish children and their 102 adult minders sailed into Wellington Harbour on an American troopship and were transferred to a train that took them to an army-run camp near Pahiatua, in northern Wairarapa, where they were to spend the next few years. It's deeply symbolic that the guest of honour will be former Polish president Lech Wałesa, the man credited with eventually restoring to Poland the freedom the wartime refugee children were promised but cruelly denied.

All the Pahiatua Poles have similar stories to tell. Their narrative starts before the outbreak of World War II, when Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, under which they would carve up Poland between them.

Germany invaded Poland from the west in September 1939, triggering the declaration of war by Britain and its Commonwealth allies. Only weeks later, Soviet tanks rolled in from the east.

Stalin's plans for eastern Poland were laid well in advance. They included the removal of a substantial part of the Polish population – an estimated 1.6 million – to Siberia. By targeting the families of army officers, academics, professionals and civil servants, the Soviet secret police hoped to remove potential resistance leaders while providing forced labour for collective farms in the vast, sparsely populated regions beyond the Ural Mountains.

Orphans in Uzbekistan, 1942. Photo/Courtesy of John Roy/Chris Gladun

The forced removals (Lepionka and others avoid using the term deportations, since it was their own country they were being kicked out of) began in February 1940. The pattern was invariably the same: armed men banging on the door in the middle of the freezing night, and giving the occupants two hours to gather whatever they could carry before abandoning their homes.

The families would be taken to the nearest railway station. Lepionka, then only three, remembers "a big commotion – lots of screaming". Cattle wagons were lined up waiting for them. He remembers his father walking along the line of wagons and finding one with more room than the rest.

Some men were shot even before the removals began. In the book New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children, Dioniza Choros recalled five armed men banging on the door with rifle butts, shouting to be let in.

"My father, and a neighbour who earlier sought refuge in our house, were ordered to dress and go with them. He told us to be brave before he was taken away. Shortly, we heard gunfire, a dog barked, then one final shot and deafening silence." Next morning, in the garden, they found the bloodied hats of their father and the neighbour. It wasn't until 1998 that Choros learned her father's body, along with others, had been found in a nearby field when the snow melted the following spring.

Halina (nee Melgies) and Eric Lepionka, who came here in 1945. Photo/Johnny Clark

The train trip to Siberia through the frozen countryside took weeks. Families slept on the floors or on plank shelves. The cramped wagons had barred windows and a hole in the floor for a toilet. According to Lepionka, 20 to 30 families were in each wagon and the stench was terrible.

Babies who died during the arduous journey had to be thrown out into the snow. Occasionally, the train would stop and desperately hungry passengers would go in search of food. Some failed to make it back to the train and were never seen by their families again.

A quarter-century later, Lepionka wept at the sight of the railway wagons used in the film Doctor Zhivago, because they reminded him of the one he and his family had travelled in.

Conditions were little better when they reached their destinations. For the Lepionka family, this was a remote forest in Siberia. His parents and oldest brother were put to work in the forest, another brother was put into school, and Eric was left in their barracks-type hut, which they shared with other families, to look after his baby brother. A truck would come once a week with rations.

Lepionka remembers dying children calling out for food, "moaning and groaning for days and then going quiet".

Eric’s brother, Jan (third from right), in 1945.

After two years of grinding hardship in Siberia, word came that the Poles had been granted an "amnesty". Germany had invaded the Soviet Union; one tyrant had turned against another. The Soviet Union was now on the same side as the Allies and the Polish slave labourers had become an embarrassment. Besides, it was now in Stalin's interest for the thousands of former Polish soldiers in Siberia to be allowed to join the Allied forces in the war against Germany.

Thus began an epic trek south through what are now the central Asian republics to Iran, from where the Polish Government-in-exile - based in London – was arranging passage to countries willing to accept the Poles as refugees.

Of the original six Lepionka brothers, only three set out with their parents for Iran. Two older brothers disappeared and the family never found out what happened to them. Another ended up fighting for the Polish army under Soviet command and eventually returned to Poland. Lepionka was finally reunited with him in 2000, a year before he died.

The refugees travelled by train as far as they could, then walked. Lepionka recalls a long line of people on foot, with a wagon for the sick. "As people died, they were thrown off." As the last of the meagre provisions brought with them from Siberia were eaten, the Poles obtained what food they could by trading garments or items of jewellery that they had secretly sewn into their clothing.

Polish children play on a seesaw in the Paihiatua refugee camp while Mrs Rubisz supervises. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Dysentery and typhoid were rife; "people died like flies". It didn't help that the ragged travellers had gone from the freezing Siberian winter to the deserts of Kazakhstan. Eventually, Lepionka's mother succumbed, dying in a half-ruined hut. "There was no one to bury her," he remembers. "Only Tadek [his older brother] and myself. No one wanted to help for fear of typhoid." By this time, their father was seriously ill, too – so ill he didn't know what was happening.

In the end, Lepionka says, a group of Jewish people helped bury his mother. His voice thickening with emotion, he recalls finding a couple of sticks and making a cross for her grave.

It was common for parents to die and their children to survive – hence the overwhelming number of orphans in the group that came to New Zealand. Lepionka believes parents went hungry so their children could eat. "I think our mother sacrificed herself for us."

Lepionka's father recovered, but not before he became separated from his sons. He eventually returned to Poland and in 1947, through the Red Cross, learnt his sons were in New Zealand. But the family were never reunited. Someone – Lepionka isn't sure who – made the decision not to send the boys back to Poland, which left their father "heartbroken". He subsequently remarried.

Somewhere near Tashkent, Lepionka and his little brother, aged only two-and-a-half, lost contact with Tadek while trying to make their way to an orphanage they had heard about. Trying to find their way back to their father, the younger two collapsed in the desert and were found by Kazakhs who took them to their camp and fed them until they had regained their strength. The irony of devoutly Catholic Poles being helped by Jews and later rescued by Muslims isn't lost on Lepionka, whose voice occasionally cracks as he relates his extraordinary story.

The children eventually found refuge in Iran, whose ruler, the Shah, earned the undying gratitude of the Poles by taking a personal interest in their welfare. It was the first semblance of normality since the outbreak of war. Lepionka spent a long time in a sanatorium before being reunited with his brothers in a Red Cross camp.

A New Zealand soldier with a Polish child in the Paihiatua camp. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

At this point the narrative shifts to New Zealand. Over a cup of tea, in the best Kiwi tradition, the wife of the then Polish Consul in New Zealand, Countess Maria Wodzicka, suggested to Janet Fraser, wife of Prime Minister Peter Fraser, that New Zealand could take some of the Polish orphans stranded in Iran. Peter Fraser embraced the idea and a plan was put in motion. The Pahiatua Poles are thought to be New Zealand’s first refugee group.

The children and their minders, including the few surviving parents, set sail from the Iranian port of Khorramshah early in October 1944, on the steamship Sontay. Rather than spend their nights in the ship’s foul-smelling, rat-infested hold in the oppressive heat, the children dragged their mattresses onto the deck and slept in the open air.

Things improved at Bombay, where they were transferred to the relative luxury of an American troopship, the USS General Randall. Here, they encountered their first New Zealanders: soldiers returning home from the war. Lepionka recalls that the children knew virtually nothing about New Zealand – just that it was a beautiful country where the grass was always green. “We heard that there was long grass, and we thought we could hide in it and avoid going to school.”

They had also learnt there were cannibals called Maoris. As they entered Wellington Harbour, the children were enchanted by the sight of wooden houses with brightly coloured roofs, clinging to what seemed impossibly steep hillsides. The older girls were later to describe it as being like a fairy tale.

Crowds and a brass band were waiting on the wharf to greet the ship. Lepionka can’t be sure whether the dockside reception was for the Polish children or the returning soldiers, but there was no doubt who the flag-waving crowds at each railway station along the train route to Pahiatua were cheering for. At Palmerston North, an estimated 80% of the city’s population turned out.

Polish and New Zealand children. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Even then, the traumatised children remained fearful and suspicious. Just as they had imagined the worst when they were loaded onto the dilapidated Sontay, so they baulked at the sight of the army trucks that were to take them on the last stage of the journey to the camp at Pahiatua. They were further unnerved by the guard towers and barbed wire that marked the entrance to the camp, which had previously been used to intern “enemy” aliens. Only gradually, as the children were plied with ice creams and shown their immaculately prepared beds, each with a toy on it, were their suspicions eased. The towers and barbed wire were soon removed.

In New Zealand’s First Refugees: Pahiatua’s Polish Children, Irena Coates (née Ogonowska) recalls marvelling at a “special quality of happiness” in their new home, “or, more correctly, an absence of threat and terror”. She was astonished at the abundance of food and had to conquer her instinct to hide it for fear there would be no more. “We started to play games and we started to laugh. I don’t think I had ever laughed before. The joy of simply being alive filled my whole body.”

Most of the children spent several years at the camp before it was closed in 1949. During that time it functioned as a “little Poland”, with its own school, hospital, Catholic church and dentist. Most of the teaching was done in Polish but a handful of New Zealand teachers provided English lessons.

On weekends and in the school holidays, children were placed with New Zealand families. Many retain happy memories of those days, but for others the adjustment to an alien culture was difficult. Wellington broadcaster Justin du Fresne, whose family lived in Pahiatua at the time, recalls Polish children coming for a midday meal on Sundays. “They were pale, silent and timid, with virtually no English.”

It was always assumed the children would eventually be repatriated to Poland, but the war was still to deliver one final, unimaginably bitter blow. At the Yalta conference in 1945, Britain and America bowed to Stalin’s demands that eastern Poland be annexed to the Soviet Union and the rest of Poland placed under communist rule. Dioniza Choros wrote: “Our sustaining dream of a return to a free Poland was shattered.”

Young women – all originally Polish refugees – from Wellington’s Ngaroma Girls’ Hostel in 1949. Photo/Alexander Turbull Library

“Everyone cursed Churchill and Roosevelt for doing that,” Lepionka remembers. “The Polish people felt betrayed. We were going to be the defenders of Poland. All the time, in our minds, there was Poland, Poland, Poland.” Hence the reverence for Wałesa, who spearheaded the drive for Poland’s freedom decades later.

A few refugees returned to Poland but were soon disillusioned by the poverty and repression under the communist regime. Most chose to stay in New Zealand, attending New Zealand schools and later going to university or into the workforce. They became doctors, nurses, teachers, business people and tradesmen.

Some married fellow Polish refugees, including Lepionka, whose wife, Halina, was born in Iran (both her parents survived the war) and was the youngest of the 732. Lepionka became a successful builder in Wellington.

The Poles were encouraged to assimilate but most remained fiercely proud of their heritage, though compromises were required. Lepionka, who still speaks with a thick Polish accent, became “Eric” at the behest of a Marist brother who taught him in Palmerston North and found his real name, Dzidzislaw, impossible to pronounce. Zbigniew Sierpinski, who sat next to him, was arbitrarily renamed Jim and later anglicised his surname, becoming the writer and photographer Jim Siers.

A handful of the refugee children never successfully adjusted to life in their new country, but the Poles, unsurprisingly, prefer to focus on the happy outcomes. Today all that remains of the Pahiatua camp is a white monument near where the entrance was, 2km south of the town. Erected in 1975, it has a shadow that at midday represents a mother holding a child. The surrounding farmland is every bit as lush and green as the children pictured it, and it’s not hard to imagine pale little Polish faces peering out from the long grass, hoping to avoid school.

John Roy. Photo/Courtesy of John Roy.

The necessary steel

John Roy is known as a successful New Zealand businessman – a founder of Mainzeal and Mair Astley – and as the Honorary Polish Consul.

But John Roy only came into existence in 1953 when the young man, determined to fit into his adopted country, opened the phone book and chose the shortest name he could find.

Until then, he had been Jan Wojciechowski, a Polish orphan who had experienced almost unendurable hardship before disembarking in Wellington in 1944 with other refugee children.

The story of his tragic early life is told in A Strange Outcome, written with Allan Parker.

The Wojciechowskis – father Jozef, mother Helena and their six children – were a farming family from the east of Poland. In

September 1939, when Jan was about six, Hitler’s tanks arrived.

Three weeks later, Stalin’s armies invaded from the east, planning to rid the eastern provinces of the Polish farmers.

Roy’s mother, grandfather, father and three siblings. Photo/Courtesy John Roy

Within days, Jozef had been taken away and shot. Then in February 1940, the family and nearly a quarter of a million others were told to collect their belongings, then put onto cattle-truck trains to Stalin’s labour camps. For 18 months the Wojciechowskis slaved in their Arctic Circle camp.

Then, in November 1941, after Stalin decided to let the Poles join his military bases in central Asia, the Wojciechowskis left. But by the time they reached Uzbekistan, one brother was lost and Helena had TB. When she died, her orphaned children were left in a desperate situation. Jan was just eight.

Eventually, the children were evacuated, ending up in New Zealand. For John there followed the quick mastering of English, the university degree, marriage to Valerie and the arrival of their six children – along with his extraordinary business success.

Asked what drove his determination to succeed, Roy told the NZ Herald in 2004, those horrific early years certainly left their mark.

“I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but on this journey something happened. It gave me the steel necessary for me to succeed in my chosen endeavour.”

This article was first published in the October 31, 2009 issue of the New Zealand Listener.